Comment: Making sense of the rejection of the Other

The resurgence of religious politics is a global phenomenon.

From Khomeini’s theocracy in Iran to the rise of Islamic movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Islamist politics has continued to be a salient feature of the Muslim world.

Religious politics, however, is not limited to the Muslim world.

Hindu nationalism in India, ultra-orthodox politics in Israel, Protestant fundamentalism in the US, religious politics in Australia, Catholic ultra-conservative politics elsewhere, and the crises of secularism in several Western European countries, mean religion is a global political topic.

The first thing that we should keep in mind therefore is that religion is not an issue unique to the Maldives.

This is important in order to avoid the false sense of an outside ‘Civilised World’ in possession of all good values. The truth is reasonable accommodation has become a profound issue in several of the so-called liberal democracies.

The second point is we need to avoid the mistake of blaming solely Islamism in our failure of reasonable accommodation. Islamism in the Maldives is a recent phenomenon, largely coinciding with democratisation since 2004.

Our shrill polemics could hardly clarify the main underlying issues around religion in the Maldives. I believe the issues around religion run deeper than recent Islamism. Let’s, for instance, take the recent cases of SAARC banners and monuments.

There have been broadly three main groups of positions on the issue: a) those who reject the monuments and the banners largely because they supposedly show imageries of other religions; b) those who accept the imagery saying they are not really supposed to be religious imageries or idols as such; and, c) those who decry Maldivian ‘intolerance’, ‘ignorance’, or ‘fanaticism’.

a) What is largely true for the first group is that their publicly cited main excuse for rejecting the monuments and banners is not particularly or only Islam. For it would be extremely hard to justify destruction of imagery and idols of other religions purely based on Islam. It would be impossible to cite a purely religious rationale to reject freedom of religion.

b) What is true for the second group is their assumption that if the imageries were really supposed to be religious imageries or idols in the public sphere, it might be OK to reject them.

c) What is largely true for the third group is there is a collective, generalised image of the Maldivians: thus, we hear remarks such as ‘Maldivian intolerance’, ‘undeserving people’, ‘fanatically intolerant state’, and so on.

If so, I think there is something common to the reaction of all three groups. The underlying issue is not Islam as such. ‘Intolerance’ as such does not explain it either.

Based on these three sorts of reaction, I submit there is something about the Maldives as a nation that does not allow reasonable accommodation. Indeed, the dominant Maldivian national identity is uniquely exclusionist. It automatically excludes the possibility of any reasonable accommodation.

Therefore, much like the Muslim veil is seen as an affront to the secular character of France, any non-Muslim religious symbol or imagery in the public sphere is an affront to the Maldivian national self-understanding.

This national self-understanding has now become our background national self-understanding. That is, we are not necessarily even aware that we act under its hegemonic influence. It is our taken for granted identity.

Fortunately or unfortunately, national identity is not given or primordial.

Identity is a construction of discourses, symbols, and myths. Political and other leaders could be effective agents of construction of identity. For this to happen, modern developments such as newspapers or other communication media are necessary.

It is no trivial matter that a chapter in President Gayoom’s biography, A Man for All Islands, is entitled ‘A Sense of Identity’. When Gayoom came to power in 1978, the Maldives hardly had any sense of collective identity.

Maldivians, of course, were Dhivehin. However, despite President Amin’s initial efforts since late 1940s, Maldivians had not imagined themselves as a nation.

It came down to Gayoom, with the widespread availability of means of communication, to construct such an identity.

Today this national identity is coming under immense strain.

With the pluralisation and fragmentation of religious discourses, with the increasing number of migrants of other faiths, and the Maldives becoming part of the globalised world, life would not be either easy or just with an out-dated national self-understanding.

It’s time for us as a nation to consider seriously Islam’s universal values of equality and love.

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